Dacia Clay, host of “The Classical Classroom” podcast, with two members of the classical group Brooklyn Rider
Photo: Courtesy Dacia Clay
For nearly 300 episodes now, the “Classical Classroom” podcast has helped to bring classical music a little more down to earth. References to Lady Gaga, the Smiths and Tom Waits pepper host Dacia Clay’s interviews; the show’s logo riffs on the classic Ramones presidential seal. The topics vary wildly, but the underlying message is more or less the same: her guests are a lot less aloof and stuck-up than classical-music folk are often made out to be.
“Classical-music people themselves largely are not stuffy,” says Clay. “It’s an amazing world of incredibly talented, incredibly dedicated people. They in no way are separated from what is happening right now, and a lot of the music that they’re doing is commenting on what is happening now in the world.”
“Classical Classroom” began in 2013, when the Clear Brook High School alum was the music librarian for Houston’s now-defunct Classical 91.7 FM. (Houston Public Media sold that frequency in 2016 but continues classical programming on the station’s HD-2 frequency and online.) A classical-music newbie, Clay already had her eye on creating content.
“You can only organize a library of CDs so much before it’s basically totally organized,” she laughs.
“I’m with these classical-music people all day, and they’re constantly talking about music and making these inside jokes,” recalls Clay. “They’re all laughing, I have no idea what they’re talking about, so finally one day I was talking to a co-worker and I was like, ‘If you guys think this music is so important, why don’t you come into the studio and teach me something about it?’”
In early episodes, Clay discussed the likes of Vivaldi and Richard Strauss with her Houston Public Media colleagues. She quickly branched out into Houston’s classical-music community, interviewing guests such as ROCO’s Alecia Lawyer and Houston Chamber Choir’s Robert Simpson. Many professors from both Rice University and the University of Houston’s music schools came on the show as well.
“It was super-intimidating to me to ask these super-smart people all of these dumb questions, but I was just like, ‘I’m just going to go for it,’” Clay says. “I heard from people that they appreciated me essentially taking a bullet for them and asking all of those really basic questions.”
As much as she learned, Clay never took herself too seriously either. She found old interview clips of composers Leonard Bernstein, Glenn Gould, Aaron Copland and Igor Stravinsky — all long deceased — to conduct a seance of sorts in one episode.
Her style struck a chord, as did her fledgling Photoshop skills. Needing a logo, Clay pasted her head on Rodin’s famous “The Thinker” statue, which she’s convinced helped land the show in iTunes’ “New & Noteworthy” section. Her audience began to grow almost immediately.
“We’d never really thought about analytics or anything like that,” she says, “but we were like, ‘Wow! People are really responding to this.’ That, I think, was probably the moment where it was like, ‘We could really make something of this.’”
Clay says she’s never really struggled to come up with episode ideas, especially now. Favorite guests include violinist Rachel Barton Pine, composer John Luther Adams and the guys in Chicago-based Third Coast Percussion, whom Clay describes as “completely insane and so much fun.” Her “white whales” are Yo-Yo Ma and Phillip Glass.
“Classical music, it’s very much still alive, and so there are constantly new projects coming up,” Clay notes. “We could be putting out four shows a week.”
It hasn’t quite worked out that way, though. In 2017, Clay left Houston for a job at Seattle classical station KING-FM; the person who hired her was a fan. Laid off in the wake of the pandemic, she now does freelance audio production and says she tries to get one new “Classical Classroom” up a month. Released in July, the latest one is called “Cello, Is It Me You’re Looking For?”; her guest is Atlanta Symphony cellist Joel Dallow.
Clay isn’t closing up her classroom anytime soon, though: she’s having too much fun. Besides making her a better interviewer, the show also has taught her a more profound lesson: admitting you don’t know something carries no shame.
“If you see there’s something that you are ignorant about and you try to learn it, you know, I think that’s great,” she says. “That’s part of why I think people feel intimidated by classical music: They don’t want to look dumb. But I learned how to be OK with looking dumb. I would say that’s my biggest takeaway from working on the show.”
Chris Gray is a Galveston-based writer.